Happy 90th, Murray! A tribute to Ploughshares co-founder Murray Thomson

Wendy Stocker

Debbie Grisdale

The Ploughshares Monitor Volume 34 Issue 1 Spring 2013

Last December friends and colleagues gathered to celebrate the birthday of a man who has been at the centre of the Canadian peace movement for more than half a century. Active in many organizations and founder of more than one, Murray Thomson holds a special place in the history and development of Project Ploughshares.

In 1976 Murray met Ernie Regehr to explore a joint study project. Both had witnessed with dismay the growth in post-colonial militarism, with newly independent countries spending vast amounts of borrowed money to build up military institutions rather than invest in human development. Those meetings led to Project Ploughshares, originally described as a “working group on militarism and underdevelopment.” Early on, the focus expanded to include nuclear disarmament.

In a November 1980 issue of the Hamilton Spectator, Murray described the work of Project Ploughshares in those first years:

We have one foot in the grass-roots and one with the decision makers. We aregathering statistics on the arms trade, increasing public awareness, trying to link disarmament and Third World development and studying ways of making the defence industry into a civilian industry to protect workers’ jobs.

Murray had many contacts and was critical in keeping the working group financially afloat in the early days. When funding became a little more stable, he came onboard as a part-time employee, focusing on public education and mobilization, as well as government relations. Murray was instrumental in the emergence of Ploughshares local groups. He and Ernie Regehr co-edited The Ploughshares Monitor.

After Murray retired from his staff position at Ploughshares he maintained a strong connection with the organization, serving on the Board in the 1980s. Over the years, he has collaborated with Ploughshares on many projects, including the one he is currently most strongly identified with—Canadians for a Nuclear Weapons Convention (CNWC). As Murray observed in an article in Maclean’s in March 1980, “Canadians need to question the ancient belief that ‘if you want peace, prepare for war.’”

Born in Honan, China, Murray Thomson was a “mishkid,” a child of Canadian missionaries. When the Second World War broke out he was at the University of Toronto. Like many other young men at that time, he left school and signed up with the air force. By 1944 he had earned his wings, but he never went overseas. The dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima had a profound effect on him. He would later say, “Hiroshima made me a pacifist.” Somewhere along the way he became a Quaker.

In the years before Project Ploughshares, Murray’s interests and work took him to southeast Asia, where he worked in international development and adult education. After his time with Ploughshares, he founded or co-founded Peace Brigades International, Peacefund Canada, and Canadian Friends of Burma, among other organizations that have played important roles in speaking truth to power.

Murray’s sense of humour and playfulness has carried him, and many others, through dark times. His office was just down the hall from mine for a number of years and his tireless optimism was an antidote to flagging energies. “Inch by bloody inch,” he’d say, “we’ll beat ’em yet, kid”—referring to such powerful forces as the military-industrial complex.

In 1990 Murray was awarded the Pearson Peace Medal by the United Nations Association of Canada and in 2001 he received the Order of Canada. His Order of Canada citation starts: “He has devoted a lifetime to world peace.” And his work has continued, nonstop.

When Murray turned 85, he founded Canadians for a Nuclear Weapons Convention, which, at last count, brings together more than 600 recipients of the Order of Canada (including Ploughshares co-founder Ernie Regehr), from all walks of life, in the cause of nuclear disarmament. CNWC informs and educates Canadians on the increasing danger of nuclear proliferation and nuclear war. The signatories support and endorse the United Nations Secretary-General’s five-point plan for nuclear disarmament, including the endorsement of a nuclear weapons convention. Through education, CNWC seeks to engender the political will to adopt a nuclear weapons convention as a component of Canadian foreign policy.

A similar initiative has been started with prominent Australians. To date more than 800 recipients of the Order of Australia have called on their government to show leadership in outlawing nuclear weapons.

Before the celebratory birthday dinner, Murray participated in a panel discussion, Getting to Zero Nuclear Weapons: How? As reported in Jim Creskey’s December 12 article in Embassy, “The charm and dedication of ‘a disarmament crazy,’” Murray outlined three tracks to reach that destination.

“The first track, familiar to most of us, is to increase, improve, or combine with others what we have been doing all along.” He lists many organizations working for nuclear abolition. Ploughshares is mentioned: “It means that Ernie and Nancy Regehr’s 35-year long nurturing and care of Project Ploughshares receive more than a cursory nod of recognition from those who determine Canadian foreign policy.”

The second track “is the one which Doug Roche, John Polanyi, Ernie Regehr, Michel Bastarache, Lauren Isabelle, and about 600 others of us have been traveling, some of us for almost four years.” This is the CNWC.

“The third track places greater focus on Parliament and on political priorities, while combining elements of the first two tracks. It involves the sustained work of Doug Roche in initiating and urging on the Middle Powers Initiative. It also has had NGO involvement in finding ways to strengthen initiatives.”

Murray made a point in emphasizing the importance of the analysis provided by Project Ploughshares in pursuing a world free of nuclear weapons. How does the Canadian government spend money designated for Canadian security? Ploughshares “showed that Defence got the lion’s share, 75 per cent or more, while Disarmament received less than one per cent. This is outrageous.”

He also declared that “the most reliable [resource] we have in Canada on global conflicts is the Ploughshares Monitor and its annual survey on civil and regional wars.”

What is the goal of all these tracks, all this analysis? According to Murray, “the only right decision is that nuclear weapons never, ever, under any circumstances, be used. And the only way to ensure that never happens is to get rid of them, now, as fast as we can.”

Murray has always been focused and tireless. When commenting on the eight sports teams he played on at university, he told me, “I was neither very fast nor very tall, but I knew where I was going.” He still has his eye on the ball: an international convention to ban nuclear weapons.

Debbie Grisdale is the representative of the Anglican Church of Canada on the Governing Committee of Project Ploughshares. Her original tribute to Murray Thomson appeared in the December 2012 issue of Crosstalk, a publication of the Anglican Diocese of Ottawa.


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